inside prison

Offenders in the Global Biometric Market

US Crime Laboratories

A list of some US Crime Laboratories that contract out their services to government agencies and police departments.

  • Biosynthesis, Univ of North Texas
  • BODE Technology Group
  • Cellmark Lab
  • Fairfax Identity Lab
  • Genelex Corp
  • GeneScreen
  • Laboratory Corporation of America (Labcorp)
  • Lifecodes of Nashville (formally MicroDiagnostics)
  • Long Beach Genetics
  • Marshall University Forensic Science Center
  • Microdiagnostics
  • Myriad Genetic Laboratories, Inc.
  • Religene Technologies
  • Serological Research Institute
The following article first defines biometrics, discusses the process of fingerprinting, and then looks at how the biometrics industry is being applied to various correctional systems around the world. It also discusses some of the recent technology being engineered in the biometric and bio-surveillance industry. These sorts of technological developments, and other enhancements to personal and public security, usually present important privacy issues and can become controversial if they suggest a limitation on personal freedoms either in the present or in the future.

What are Biometrics?

A "biometric" is simply a biological characteristic someone has that uniquely identifies him or her. The most widely known example is the fingerprint, however other characteristics, such as an iris pattern, a retinal configuration, a person's voice, or someone's facial contours can also provide unique identifying patterns. Biometric technology is the full range of techniques that are possible to capture, measure, and record these unique characteristics, or "biometrics". Biometrics are used not just in the criminal justice system, but also widely in business, human resources, international travel, and private security establishments and departments of national security (The Western Mail, 26 July 2007), including user authentication to all sorts of "Access Control Lists" in many industries.

An "Access Control List" is a broad term referring to a list of individuals entitled to certain goods and services. Usually these privileged goods and services are "spaces" such as locker rooms, office buildings, upper floor levels, or underground parking lots. Typically, user authentication is done through an RFID card, but with the growth in biometric security technology, these cards are now also coming equipped with biological sensors to detect fingerprints, eyes, retina patterns, voice pattern, and so on. Mainstream Physical Access Control Systems (PSACS), which are typical in authenticating users for access to physical places, are also being replaced by Role-based Access Control Systems, where the central list of authorized users is based on a cluster of roles with specific duties and responsibilities, rather than simply a large and ever-expanding list of specific people.


The fingerprint is the simplest example, and the most popular form of forensic identification. In the forensic community fingerprinting is sometimes also known as "latent print examination". Fingerprinting is simply the process of capturing an individual's irregular ridges of skin on the pads of the fingers. There are several mainstream fingerprinting methods. One is the "optical" fingerprint recognition system, which physically images the area using lenses, prisms, and optical fibres, and then uses optical recognition to link the image to the data. The finger is placed on a surface and exposed to light beams. The skin ridges of the finger make contact with the lens equipment, while the valleys between the ridges do not. The light reflects differently from the surface of the finger depending on the depth of these ridges. This produces a very clear alternating pattern of dark and light stripes, and this pattern becomes the individual's unique "biometric".

There are also ultrasonic fingerprint recognition systems, which essentially follow the same theory as optical systems, except instead of using light they use ultrasonic signals to bounce off the surface of the finger and relay the information about the depth of the finger's ridges and valleys. And there are also thermal fingerprinting systems, which use very fine heat-sensing equipment to detect differences in thermal conductivity between the surface of the finger and the air.

Fingerprinting has been used for around a century, and most would agree that it succeeds in uniquely identifying a given individual down to a specified level of accuracy. Interestingly, fingerprinting technology has not been widely validated by the scientific community. It is generally thought to have an error rate of zero, however, fingerprinting has been guilty of misattribution on a number of high-profile occasions, including those of the FBI's Latent Print Unit and those of the Boston Police Department's Latent Print Unit. Experts estimate the true error rate of fingerprinting is probably between 0.5% and 1%, which is actually quite significant considering the admissability of fingerprints in courts of law, and considering that fingerprinting is used over 200,000 times in the United States each year and is likely responsible for a large number of convictions. The fingerprint is a unique identifier, but there are exceptions to achieving flawless accuracy.

DNA Fingerprinting

fingerprint-scanner DNA fingerprinting is a process of comparing the DNA sequences of two specimens. This type of analysis can ascertain with a very high degree of certainty whether two samples of tissue came from the same host. Specifically, two DNA sequences are examined for similarities and differences. Specimens of tissue or blood are subjected to DNA analysis and then added to a central database. The technique is based on variable number of tandem repeat (VNTR) regions in the human genome. Within these regions a particular DNA sequence is repeated many times, and it is these sequences that are examined by the forensic investigator when analyzing two samples - one from the suspect and one from the crime scene. Since samples often get contaminated before they have a chance to be thoroughly analyzed, the results are "amplified" by a polymerase chain reaction.

The technique of DNA fingerprinting was developed by Sir Alec Jeffreys at the University of Leicester in the early 1980's. Shortly after it was introduced into the police services, it was used to clear a false suspect in the Pitchfork rape-murder case in 1987. In that case, police collected blood samples from 5,000 people to cross-reference with a comparison sample, and eventually identified Colin Pitchfork as the murderer. Two years later, the conviction of rapist Robert Melias was the first time a court case was decided on the basis of DNA evidence. At the same time, however, there are some doubts about its accuracy. For one, the lab technician must follow strict protocols in order for the assumptions behind the statistics to hold. Laboratory error is the most likely way for a false match or a false dismissal. Cellmark Diagnostics, a commercial testing lab in Germantown, Maryland, was one of the two laboratories that the OJ Simpson prosecutors used to examine Simpson's DNA, and it had confessed to a false DNA match, and subsequently underwent proficiency tests to bring its lab error rate down to 0.5% after at the trial. So there is still the possibility of error in DNA fingerprinting.

DNA fingerprinting is a routine step in data collection from convicted offenders, and is used commonly in homicide cases and burglaries. However, DNA fingerprinting is not only useful for detecting crimes, but also for pedigree and sex selection, medical diagnosis, wildlife conservation (where 300 cases have been solved using wildlife forensics in India), and ancestry-research. The first in India to pioneer the technology was Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology.

Electronic Monitoring (EM) and Biometrics Identification

The United States was considered the birthplace for electronic monitoring of offenders, beginning first with radio frequency transmitters and now to round-the-clock GPS tracking. The official adoption and use of electronic monitoring reportedly dates back to 1983, at which time it was almost exclusively used to monitor offenders on probation and parole. It was two researchers at Harvard University, Robert Gale and his brother, who in the 1960s first developed the technology under the guidance of behavioral psychologists for the purpose of encouraging pro-social behavior. Now, however, with more widespread use of intensive supervision and non-custodial sentences (not only in th United States but around the world), electronic monitoring is used more generally for a wider range of offenders, and it currently authorized for use in the criminal justice in 39 states in the US. Currently, Florida is considered the heaviest users/consumers of EM technology. Its popularity has recently increased due to the recession and the need for more cost-effective interventions in response to government cut-backs. Contrary to belief, it is not clear that the use of electronic monitoring has reduced prison populations or custodial sentences served. For instance, in the UK, when electronic monitoring was introduced, the prison population was 50,000, and it is now 87,000. In criminology terms, it may be considered an example of "net-widening," or the expansion of incarceration by using newer and more various forms of supervision and surveillance, since many low-risk offenders must now wear the bracelets who would not have otherwise accepted electronic monitoring as part of their community sentence (Electronic monitoring, 1 November 2011, Australian Broadcasting Corporation). At the same time, however, some governments, such as Thailand, have explicitly adopted the technology to reduce the overcrowding problems in prisons, in response to human rights violations. In Thailand, the national prison population has exceeded the acceptable standard by four times. In addition, the evidence for the effectiveness of electronic monitoring has been positive. According to a study by the National Institute of Justice in 2010, electronic monitoring decreases recidivism by 31%.

One of the largest makers and distributors of eletronic monitoring devices is 3M Technology. Other manufacturers include SecureAlert, BI, G4S, and Serco, the latter two being the primary suppliers in the UK market. BI, which suffered a server failure in 2009 and left most of its clients without any tracking information on itst offenders, has approximately 900 contrcts with various government agencies across the US. In the case of the 3M technology, and like many similiar technologies, the offender straps a waterproof bracelet around his or her ankle, which then periodically transmits signals through GPS to a receiver located in the offender's home, which in turn transmits the information to the central server. The offender feels a "buzzing" sensation around the ankle if he or she enters an "exclusion zone." Offenders generally report that they feel like they are constantly being watched by someone. The exact frequency of transmission depends on the details set out by the court. The EM devices also transmit notifications to the offender when he or she is either out of range, or is violating a condition or timetable or schedule established by the probation officer. For instance, if an offender is at home and should be at a doctor's appointment, the offender might receive a text message, vibration, or ring. "Exclusion zones" are set up in advance and determine when and where an offender can be before the alarm sounds. A simpler device that is also used for the same purpose is a voice-recognition call, an "acoustic fingerprint," that first phones the offender during specified periods, tracks the cell-phone location, and verifies the voice of the recipient who answers. The devices can be cut simply with a cable cutter, but the alarm will sound. In fact, 3M's electronic monitoring devices all have tamper-proof mechanisms wearby even strong attempts at stretching the bracelets notify Probation's Electronic Monitoring Centre. (German states join forces to monitor convicted criminals 29 August 2011, the Deutsche Welle)

The security firm SecureAlert, Inc. also makes similar devices for the parole and probation market, but its so-called "state of the art" ReliAlert GPS Tracking system even makes efforts towards anticipating an offender's behaviour, notifying the Intervention Monitoring Centre when suspicious movements and activities are analyzed from the data.

Critics have noted that such technology, however, can create the possibility of false arrests and improper notifications. In the state of Wisconsin, which currently monitors between 600 and 700 offenders using EM, the majority of those wearing the bracelets are sex-offenders with a high-risk of re-offending, so neither policymakers nor the public have much sympathy for this tradeoff in favor of public safety. Wisconsin is targeted to increase its use of GPS tracking 50% in the next several years, and a new law is being passed that will allow judges to mandate the use of EM for any offender who violates a temporary restraining order. This will increase the number of offenders wearing EM technology to nearly 1,000 by 2015.

In 2006, the European Union adopted a widespread policy of requiring all visa applicants to submit biometric identifiers (including facial scans and fingerprinting) to member states, and in recent years several European countries have adopted the technology more enthusiastically in prisons and probation services. The UK's probation services uses eletronic monitoring extensively, and in Sweden, where the management and operation of electronic monitoring is the responsibility of government, not of private companies like it is in the United States. Germany recently made a progressive commitment to monitoring offenders with electronic surveillance tags, such that now a central surveillance centre located in Bad Villbell collects information from ankle bracelets on hundreds of recently-released offenders on an ongoing basis. Germany procures its devices from Florida-based 3M/ElmoTech, the leading provider of such eletronic monitoring systems for offenders. The argument by these companies, as well as by state governments and even by researchers, is that the electronic monitoring allows offenders to maintain important social and employment contacts during a range of working hours during the course of their probationary period.

The same police and prison officials also require the use of breathalyzers in many cases, where an offender has committed substance-abuse crimes. A camera installed on the device prevents the offender from faking the test by using a friend or confederate. Countering false passports and international document forgery is a cheif purpose of biometric fingerprinting. New Zealand now collects biometric information, such as fingerprints and photographs, on immigrants to secure its borders from identity fraud. Several New Zealand prisons have also been considering biometric devices on offenders, such as some of the newer low-security reintegration centres in the Bay of Plenty and in Taranaki. Officials for the prison service argue that biometric machines provide faster access of families to their loved-ones in prison, as it automates the process of approval that has normally requiring heavy amounts of paperwork. Since the evidence shows that successful reintegration depends on critical contact with family-members, the prison service is looking at these machines closely in order to expedite visitations. New Zealand is currently aiming for a 25% reduction in recidivism over the next 5 years, and is also working towards its state-of-the art Immigration Global Management System for 2015 launch that will issue a range of biometric identifiers to expedite visa-processing for foreign travelers (HI-TECH PLAN HELPS PRISONERS' FAMILIES, 26 August 2012, Sunday Star-Times).

In the Ukraine, recently, Cabinet Ministers introduced biometric passports that must contain both left and right forefinger prints for those traveling abroad, as part of an initiative that will tackle cross-border forgery and fraud. Albania, Bosnia, and Herzogivina have recently made strides to ensure Visa-free travel by issuing biometric identifies on foreign passports.

The systems, as expensive as they are, have also bee known to fail. For instance, at the new "high-tech" Isis prison in Woolwichin, southeast London, a sophisticated fingerprint-based roll-call system malfunctioned last January, forcing the prison to shut-down prisoners' acitivity and to revert back to old-style manual-based monitoring by staff. The biometric system installed at Isis requires inmates to identify themselves using fingerprinting outlets each time they move to a new location within the facility. Sometimes the fingerprint system would fail to tally the prisoner and the system would freeze, causing regular disruptions in supervision procedures. Training for prisoners was frequently shut down, education sessions were prolonged, inmates would arrive late to group, and so on, causing havoc for employees and interfering with the progress of offenders through their institutional cycle (Fiasco at £110m high-tech prison PD 18 January 2012,


Prisons in India have also begun to use biometrics to maintain a list of identified visitors. Many prison visitors use fake names and addresses, and many of these are also habitual offenders and those slipping contraband into the prison on a regular basis. The new identity system, such as the one in Coimbatore Central Prison, requires visitors to present voter identity cards, driving licenses, and Pan cards to enter the prison complex, while video surveillance systems and web cameras take their photographs and biometric fingerprint systems take their fingerprints. Visitors who are flagged as "regulars," that is, people who visit inmates at least once a week, are automatically retrieved for examination as a routine precaution.

Several other prisons in India are also adopting the technology, such as Palayamkottai Central Prison, and those at Vellore, and Trichy. (Biometric system to track visitors at Central Prison, 10 December 2012, The Times of India).

The UK

In two London boroughs last year, unions created an uproar after officials decided to allow offenders to report to electronic kiosks instead of probation officers. If the electronic systems set up in Bexley and Bromley turn out to be successful, more will be installed across the city. Under the new system, offenders use their fingerprints to sign into purple machines, located at various probation services offices. The machines present several closed-ended questions, such as whether or not they have changed addresses, jobs, being re-arrested or violated the conditions of their parole, to the offenders to keep the system up-to-date on their activities. Last year they were costing the city approximately 130,000 pounds to operate and maintain.

The prison service defends the initiative on the grounds that it will help ensure a better use of police resources and improve the awareness of an offender's risk level by automatically and quicly evaluating the offender's responses to the questions. Research suggests that only 25% of a probation officer's time is spent in close contact with an offender, anyway, argue the officials, so it does not present such a serious compromise, however, since many offenders may have literacy or comprehension problems, the machines may not be able to be applied across the board. (Machines will replace humans to track ex-convicts: Probation officers' union warns that the plan is designed to cut jobs and will increase public risk, 29 April 2012, The Observer).

A recently designed prison in Belmarsh West in London, HMP Thameside (900 prisoner capacity), is considered one of the most technologically-advanced in the world. The prison comes equipped with many modern CCTV cameras, biometric-key entry for staff, and various IT-workstations that deliver educational and training programs for offenders. As mentioned previously, the probation services of the UK are adopting such technologies enthusiastically, as over 15,000 offenders are dealt community-based sentences every year in London, alone, and competition in the private probation services industry means that companies, like Serco, which was awarded a recent 4-year 38 million pound contract by the UK government to manage offenders on community-release, are adopting the latest and most efficient technologies to help reduce costs of the re-entry process borne by taxpayers.

United States

Recently, as part of its $1 billion dollar Next Generation of Identification initiative, the FBI established a tattoo-identification database from local and federal law enforcement agencies and academic organizations. As an alternative to fingerprinting, tattoo-identification is a new form of biometric identification that allow police to verify gang affiliations by sending photographs and their associated metadata to central databases for verification. For example, over 300,000 inmates who have passed through the Oakland County Jail, in Michigan, contributed valuable gang information that can be cross-checked by officials when a suspect has been identified. Michigan's Offender Tracking System is responsible for maintaining such a system of biometric ID's (FBI creating tattoo database to help with investigations, 27 August 2012, The Detroit News). In Ohio recently, a budget bill was introduced requiring the use of fingerprint authentication for patients seeking prescriptions for dangerous drugs. Some prisons in some US states also require biometric voice identification when offenders receive phone calls.


At the New Edmonton Remand Centre (ENRC), Canada's largest detention facility and the result of the government's new P3 style of infrastructure for prison facilities, millions of dollars have funded the installation of 1,480 surveillance CCTV cameras, motion-detection systems, electronic entry-doors, biometric fingerprint readers, and IP-based tracking systems. Every cell is wired for video surveillance, which makes good use of the remand centre's over 1,200 terabytes of data centre capacity to continuously handle the volume of images, surveillance recordings, voice and electronic administrative records, and so on. All the CCTV cameras operate with dual backup systems, and the prison as a whole was engineered to withstand the most serious of riots. 3,000 intercoms exist in the facility. The external cameras are equipped with infra-red vision. External fence breaches trigger LED warning lamps. Most astonishing is the "vascular" scans all employees must submit on entry into the facility each day. Such scans look for unique vein patterns and allow employees to enter either through key-card access or touch-screen entry (Detention Facilities: Security Blanket; There's no way of escaping the digital security technologies being installed at the Edmonton New Remand Centre, 1 August 2012, Canadian Consulting Engineer).

South Africa

South Africa recently established an "e-prison" expansion that takes biometric identification of all prisoners and operates electronic panoptics to monitor prison walls.



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